Full Show Notes
You may have noticed this, parent. There’s something hard about teaching important lessons to teenagers: they don’t want to listen to their parents lecture about ANYTHING. Also, because of their high need for autonomy, teens often feel strongly compelled to do the exact opposite of whatever their parents suggest (even when you aren’t in lecture-mode).
To be effective with teenagers, you have to be a little more subtle. Teaching lessons to teens works best when you let the teenager “discover” the answer for themself.
When you can accomplish this Jedi mind trick, your teen will no longer question you, push back, and resist your help. They will come to you first to talk through their problems (NOT to get “advice” — they don’t need that).
But how can you teach lessons to teenagers without them feeling like you are teaching them a lesson?
Easy: just tell the perfect story at the perfect time in the perfect way. Then simply let the teen realize the moral of the story on their own.
He has interviewed hundreds of successful people all over the world and collected the most impactful stories from their lives. He’s also analyzed the times when great leaders tell stories to inspire, motivate, or instruct, and he has carefully measured what works and what doesn’t work.
In our interview, Paul told me 8 simple steps to turn any vivid memory from your past into a sizzling story that will teach your teenager a valuable life lesson.
Finally, he gave me some of his personal favorite parenting stories. These are one’s he’s used with his own son and they are really powerful. In one story, Paul learns an important lesson about what it means to be a man by watching his dad eat a quiche. It’s great!
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. How to redirect your teen when they miss the ‘point’ of something you said:
“Well, that’s one way to look at it. And I thought about that too. But I drew a different conclusion from it. Let me tell you what that is…”-Paul Smith
2. What to say when your teen tells you that something crumby happened:(Members Only)
Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview
1. Finding the right stories to tell:Stories are one of the most powerful ways of teaching important lessons to teenagers, but most parents don’t tell their kids many because we can’t always think of the perfect story to tell at the perfect time. Plus, not all of us live crazy exciting lives filled with great stories. Thankfully, storytelling expert Paul Smith developed this exercise to help get the juices flowing. Use it to generate a list of 10-20 killer stories you can have in your back pocket to tell your teenager whenever they need to learn a certain lesson. To start, think of a time that you learned an important lesson, perhaps in an unexpected way. What happened? Jot it down. Next, think about times in your life when you made a huge mistake or let someone down. What happened? You can also try thinking about any vivid childhood memories where you felt terrible about something you did. Write these down too. Paul says the best stories usually involve a lesson being learned and either something surprising happening or a strong emotional experience. Write down as many of these ideas as you can think of. You can also gather story ideas from your teenager’s grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other adults or heroes in their lives. Once you have a long list, move on to the next exercise, which will help you tell the stories for maximum impact.
2. Telling the stories right:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: A good place to jump in is your story. What led you to write this book? And it’s three books now. So you’ve got Sell with a Story is the new one, which I just read on Audible recently. That’s what kind of turned me on to you. Then I also picked up Lead with a Story and then Parenting with a Story and I really like it.
Andy: They kind of go well together because the Parenting with a Story is a collection of stories that parents can tell, but then your other books kind of break down more how you can construct your own story, which I think is really important for parents because you also want to be able to have your own stories from your own life. So I think the collection of them, the trio together is awesome. So I wonder how you got into this and became such an authority on storytelling and what inspired you to then write all these books about it?
Paul: Yeah. I guess it started… So Lead with the Story was the first one. So that was for a very much my own personal benefit, really. I mean, I still had a full-time job working in corporate America when that happened, when I wrote that. My ultimate goal was to create a new career for myself being an author and a speaker and trainer, and fortunately that worked. But the interest in that topic was just because I noticed that the leaders that I wanted to grow up and be like and work for and end up being like when I grew up in the company were leaders that had this great skill of storytelling, and I didn’t know how to do that. So I read all the books I could find on the topic and I still didn’t know how to do it.
Paul: So I set out on my own personal learning journey, really. I ended up interviewing for that book, gosh, over a hundred CEOs and executives at companies all over the world. I’m up to about three or 400 now. I was looking for what are those moments where they’re telling a story? Why did they tell a story? What challenge were they facing when they decided to tell a story? What story did they tell? And then did it work to accomplish their leadership objective? Each person I interviewed probably told me between eight and 12 different stories. So you do the math. At this point, I’ve probably documented three or 4,000 individual stories.
Paul: What that’s allowed me to do is reverse engineer my way into what works and what doesn’t. So at some point along that early part of that journey, it stopped being just my own personal learning journey and became an idea for a book. I thought, “Gosh, if I want to know this that badly, and I’m having to go to this kind of trouble to learn this stuff, maybe there are other people out there that would like to know what I found.
Andy: Somebody else in the world is curious about this, too. Right.
Paul: Yeah. So then it became an idea for a book and I went through the process of finding an agent and a publisher and all that kind of stuff. And that resulted in that first book, Lead with a Story.
Andy: I see. Okay. This one is pretty comprehensive. It kind of does two things in one, it gives you a framework for how to develop your own stories and then how to make those stories more impactful and then when would be a good time to deliver them. Also, there’s a bunch of stories in here that you could just steal and use in your own career or business life. And you even say, “Hey, here’s when you could use this story” and you give examples of times when you have used them effectively. So, that’s cool. I wonder… You mentioned that one of the things you documented was the situations that led people to share a story. What did you find were some of the most important situations when stories are successful?
Paul: Yeah. Well, first of all, I’m glad you noticed that because there are a lot of people who will pick up the book and think that it’s only going to be a book about how to craft these stories, but really, as you found out, two-thirds of the book is really a collection of leadership stories. So you can read the book just to learn to be a better leader, just from the 115 different leadership stories that are in it in all these areas. Obviously, I want you to learn how to do it yourself too, which is the other third of the book, but it really is intended to be a part leadership book, part ‘how to’ guide to storytelling. So thank you for not missing that.
Andy: Actually, that makes it really impactful because then when you do get to the parts that are instructive, then you’re tying back and you’re saying, “And remember, I did that in story number 22, and I’ve used this technique in this story,” and then as a reader, it’s like, “Oh yes, he did.” And by tying in those examples, it makes the learning at the end really impactful, I think.
Paul: Good, good. Yeah. I definitely, I wanted to lead by example. Right? I think that’d be pretty hypocritical to write an entire book on leadership through storytelling and not tell a single story. That would be awful. But yeah, it also is designed to be a starter kit for your leadership stories, right? Like you said, you’re going to want your own, but you ought to be telling stories about other people as well. Right? If all you do is tell stories about yourself, I mean, what kind of person is everyone going to think you are?
Andy: Sure. Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Paul: Not the kind of person you want to be, right? So you need stories about other leaders as well. So this is the first few arrows in your quiver, if it were. But to answer your question. What are those types of situations?
Paul: I set about doing the research, thinking it was going to be just a handful of situations like needing to set a vision for the future-
Andy: Yeah. Motivating people.
Paul: … leading change, motivating and inspiring. Yes. So some of the obvious ones, right?
Paul: I was really surprised to find a lot more than that, that great leaders were using storytelling in a lot more situations than that. So other ones are things like building commitment to goals or defining customer service, or establishing the culture and values of the organization, getting people to value diversity and inclusion, teaching people to do their jobs, even a little bit of sales, which I ended up blowing out into a whole nother, a full book just on sales. But when I got to 21 different leadership challenges, my publisher just said, “Stop.”
Andy: That’s enough, Paul.
Paul: That’s enough. Yeah. “You filled up a book.” But I’m convinced I could have gone on and on and on. I mean, I was pleasantly surprised at the plethora of situations where leaders are finding themselves telling stories. I think the difference is, is that storytelling is a leadership tool, not a management tool. Right? If you’re trying to manage a process or manage people or manage decision making, it’s probably not the best tool, but if you’re doing something that feels like leadership, like getting an organization of people to do something better, there’s probably a story that could help you do it better.
Andy: And so then the jump from leadership to parenting, was that a personal thing in your own life of becoming a parent and saying, “Hey, wow, this story thing would be really important here, too” or was that something that came out of people asking you, “Could you apply these to parenting?” What made the second book this one?
Paul: Yeah. A good question. I wish I could tell you that I just thought it all up all on my own and it was a brilliant idea. But the truth is when I was doing the research for the first book, the leadership book, and I would interview somebody and I’d find a story I really liked and I’d write it up and I’d send it to them and say, “Hey, here’s how I’ve crafted this story. How does it sound?” They’d write back, “Oh yeah, you got that right or whatever, change this or change that. Oh, and by the way, I really could use that story at home with my kids.”
Paul: It never occurred to me before, but I kept getting that back. That’s when it occurred to me that leading people at work and raising kids at home have a lot of similarities. So if you think about it, I mean, in both cases, you’re kind of the boss, right?
Andy: Sure. Yeah.
Paul: In both cases you could and should care about their growth and development. Right? At some point they’re going to move off. There are a lot of similarities, right? So yes, it turns out some stories can be just as effective told at home as at work. But what that made me think was of course, well, I should just write a whole book just on stories for parents to teach their kids the character traits that I know that they want, right? That they want their kids to have. That’s what became the impetus for the second book.
Andy: It’s kind of like a cheat sheet almost, this book. In the back, there’s a list of all the different lessons you could want to teach your teenager and then what pa- all the different possible stories there are. Instead of saying don’t worry, be happy. Look at page 124, this story, right? All the things that you might want to say, “Oh, a penny saved is a penny earned,” right? These little kind of platitudes that we tend to tell our kids when we want to give them a lesson. But of course, we know those aren’t really that impactful or they’re maybe not that likely to internalize those deeply and take action on them. But if you can just replace that a penny saved is a penny earned with page number 98, story number 45, the magic of compound interest, it maybe is a lot more impactful. So in that way, this book is like a pocket cheat sheet guide for parents, I feel like.
Paul: Yeah. I like that. I’d never thought of that before, but I’m going to start calling it that now, the cheat sheet guide to parenting.
Andy: Okay. So, I mean, for people who are listening, we can’t really go through all the stories right now. I mean, I really just would encourage people to get a copy because it’s the kind of book that you want to hold on to and keep referring back to. Every time there’s something that you want to communicate to your kid, you just can flip through here and find a good story.
Andy: What I thought was really cool is you shared some insights at the end of how you had gotten these stories out of people because through the interview process, it sounds like you learned a lot about how to help people find stories in their own life and then how to articulate them. I think that’s really important because I think that a lot of us, when we try to think of a good story to tell our kids about from our life, it’s like, “Oh, I don’t have any good stories. I haven’t done any crazy stuff.”
Andy: But what you said in here is that you interviewed what, hundreds of people, I think, and you have never came across anybody that there was not a single story in them. Right? You just had to know the right questions. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about that and about how parents listening could maybe go through a similar process of these 10 questions you have in here to sort of thinking about their own life and eliciting some possible stories.
Paul: Yeah. Okay, good. Well, it sounds like you’ve got it open to those questions, so I’ll rely on you to share those at the right point. What I’ll say is, first of all, when I ask to interview people, a common response I got was, “Oh, well, I’d be happy to talk to you, but I don’t have any great stories or anything.” Everybody thinks that. Now, of course, there’s few people that are like, “Oh, I got a great story,” but they’ve got one. In fact, I’m convinced that almost all of us have one or two really great stories in our life. As long as we’re above the age of, I don’t know, 15 or something, you’ve had enough life to have had something really interesting happened to you.
Paul: The problem is most of us don’t have a hundred great stories, right?
Paul: I’m convinced you need hundreds of great stories to raise a kid properly. That was the idea behind the book was what if I interviewed a hundred people and got everyone’s best life lesson. But that way, each of us as parents would have… I’ve got my best story and your best story and her best story, and that might be enough to get a good start at some of these things. That was the idea. But then when I would interview people, like I said, mostly they’d say, “Well, I don’t have one.” What certainly not work is asking people to tell me a good story. It never worked. I mean, I tried that at first and it doesn’t work. The reason is, is because most people don’t think about these things as stories, unless it’s something that they’ve told a lot of times before, right?
Paul: So asking somebody to tell you a great story about their life doesn’t register within. It’s not connected to anything in the brain because that event is connected… It’s an event. It’s something that happened to them. In fact, that really became clear to me when I wrote… Again, I’ll interview somebody, they’ll tell me a dozen stories. I’ll pick the one that I think is the best. I’ll write it up. I’ll send it to them to ask them to fact check it. Did I get everything right?
Paul: One of the early interviews I did, a woman wrote back to me and she said, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what you were looking for. That’s not really a story. That’s just something that happened to me one time.” I was like, “That’s what a story is.”
Andy: That’s kind of the definition.
Paul: Yes. It’s something that happened to you sometime. That’s when it clicked to me that people don’t think of things that happened to them as stories, they think of them as things that happened to them. So if you want to get to those stories, you have to ask them about something interesting that happened to them. That works a lot better.
Andy: I like that. It’s like we have folders, kind of like a computer I think of some times in our brain. You’re trying to get them to access the story folder, but maybe they just haven’t saved much stuff into that folder yet. Right?
Andy: Because they haven’t thought of it as stories, but in the stuff that’s happened to me folder, there’s tons in there, right?
Paul: It’s full. It’s full of stuff. Right?
Paul: Yes. That’s a great analogy.
Andy: It’s kind of cool. So, that’s what you do here. I guess the first question you have for people is tell me about a time in your life when you learned an important, but completely unexpected lesson or learned it in an unexpected way.
Paul: Yeah. So see there, notice I’m asking them about something that happened, a lesson that they’ve learned. What I figured out is that two of the things that make for a great story is when there’s something really emotional involved, there’s something that happened in the story that affected somebody in an emotional, personal visceral way,, and secondly, if there was a surprise, if there was something totally unexpected that happened. Those stories tend to be the most memorable, the most engaging, the most compelling, the most interesting. I can’t remember what all the questions are. But probably something that will be in there about something emotional as well. So, that combination of things. You’re looking for something that happened where I learned an important life lesson, and it either affected me emotionally, or there was a big surprise in it. Those are the things in general that you’re looking for.
Andy: You point out in your other two books that you can create a surprise. There may be a surprise, kind of. Some stories have a surprise naturally built in, but sometimes you’re able to structure them in a way that manufactures a surprise. You talk about research on rats learning mazes and how when there is that adrenaline in the brain, after we hear something, we are more likely to remember it later. So you pointed out that putting surprise at the end of a story, if you possibly can, is a really good way to make it more memorable. Can you talk a little bit about that and about how you do that?
Paul: Yeah. What you said is correct. A surprise releases a little bit of adrenaline in our brains, which turns out to make the memory consolidation process, which is the technical term for the process by which we remember something that just happened. It’s like drinking coffee with caffeine. It literally makes your brain a little bit smarter for a few minutes until it wears off, right? It enhances the memorability of whatever’s going on while that adrenaline is still in your system. So you want a surprise at the end of your story so that they remember the lesson at the end of the story, right?
Andy: I see.
Paul: A way to do that, and I’ll just demonstrate it with an example, and we probably should have a story anyway in this conversation. So here’s one.
Paul: There’s a young boy named James, nine-year-old kid. He’s in the kitchen with his mom and his mom’s sister. While mom and auntie are at the table having a cup of tea, James is standing at the stove, watching the tea kettle boil, and he’s just fascinated with it, right? He’s watching the steam coming off the top, right? He’s got a spoon and he holds it up there, and the little jet of steam condenses into little droplets of water on the spoon. It runs down the spoon and drips into a cup, and it’s just this watching the cycle go over and over and over again just fascinated him. His mother eventually just gets frustrated with him and she just yells at him, “James, go do your homework.” Right? “Go ride a bike, go read a book, go do something productive.” Right? “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
Paul: Fortunately, young James was, I guess, undaunted by his mother’s admonition because 20 years later, at the age of 29 and in the year 1765, James Watt reinvented the steam engine ushering in the Industrial Revolution that we of course all benefit from today, and all based on a fascination with steam that he developed at the age of nine in his mother’s kitchen, right? Now, for you, you write a book, that probably wasn’t a surprise to you, but for your audience listening, unless there happened to be a history buff, they probably didn’t realize that that story was about James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine until the end of the story. Right?
Paul: Why was that a surprise? It was a surprise simply because I didn’t tell you his last name, right? Normally, when you tell a story, the way I should have told that story, normally it would be, “Hey, let me tell you about nine-year-old James Watt.” And most people would recognize, “Oh, James Watt. Isn’t that the guy that invented the steam engine?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” You know? Then it’s interesting, but not surprising that he’s playing with steam and the kitchen. So it’s an interesting story, but it’s a much, much better story when you don’t find out that that was James Watt until the end of the story. It’s kind of like Paul Harvey, the NPR guy who always, “Now you know the rest of the story.” Right? That technique is kind of like… I could probably call it the Paul Harvey technique. Right? You save something important from the beginning of the story.
Andy: Yeah. You would hold it.
Paul: And don’t give it to the audience until the end. Just one thing, and that creates an instant surprise.
Andy: Yeah. Then in your newest book, you even had an example where there was no surprise in this story, but what you did was withhold the fact that it had happened to me, the person telling the story. So you started it out with like, “Oh, there was a vice president of this company who went out and this thing happened to, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then he got fired. And by the way, that vice president was me.” Just by withholding that piece of information and throwing it at the end, it’s like, “Ooh.” And anybody who’s telling that story too on his team that he’s trying to convey this lesson to, I think that would be really impactful.
Paul: Yeah. Far more impactful when you had that, especially if it’s something bad happened or that character did something bad, and then you realize at the end, “Oh my gosh, that was you. And you just told me this whole awful story about yourself and you’re admitting it was you.” I mean, that kind of self-deprecating story works on a lot of levels.
Andy: Okay. So this is cool. I think maybe there’s two things, right? As a parent, maybe it’s good to do after you listen to this episode, maybe spend some time just trying to brainstorm some ideas about… For you, what are the most important lessons that you’ve learned in your life? Times when you’ve made big mistakes, a vivid childhood memory about feeling terrible, smart decisions you’ve made. Just kind of trying to brainstorm some of these events from your life that are maybe in that events folder in there. And then also there’s, like you point out, times when a need arises in your life, or when you say, “Hey, wow, here’s a lesson that I really need to teach this kid.” You know? So then those specific things either you could… Even if you don’t have a story personally, you could probably find something online or you could ask some friends or something like, “Hey.”
Paul: Or your parents or your brothers and sisters, or aunts and uncles, or…
Andy: So you get these kind of story ideas, the event that happened, and maybe we have a list of those. Okay. But so then the next step is then how do we take that event and start to craft it, to turn it into not just a, “Hey, this thing happened at the end,” but a little more of a story.
Paul: Yeah. That’s where the other books come into play. Because like you said, the Parenting with a Story book is really just a collection of short stories on those, whatever it is, 23 different character traits that you would want your kid to have, which by the way, I don’t think we’ve mentioned, but those are things like ambition and open-mindedness and curiosity and courage and integrity and fairness and patience and humility. If you were to write down a list of character traits that you would want your kids to have, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be on this list. Right?
Paul: So there’s one chapter for each of these character traits and there’s three or four or five stories for each one. So you’ve got right there a set of stories to tell. If you want more of your own, unless you’re just a really unusual person, you’re probably only going to have one or two or three really great stories in your history and hence, the need for the book. But if you want more personal stories about people that your kids might know like their aunts and uncles or grandparents or whatever, yeah, you need to go interview them and ask them the same kind of questions that we talked about earlier. You’re looking for something interesting that happened to you, not a story, especially if you learned an unexpected lesson or whatever. So you can go interview your family to find out more of these stories, but the ones in the book are pretty good and they work for anybody.
Paul: If you want to be able to tell those stories really well, that’s where you probably need one of the other books, because the other books I talk about the how do you craft these stores? What’s the structure of a story? How do you get the right emotional component? Adding that element of surprise that we talked about earlier, techniques for doing that kind of thing or in the others. In fact, what I did, and you know this since you read the last book, I tried to make it easy. Instead of talking about the context and challenge and conflict and resolution and all that, I tried to simplify it and say, “Here are eight questions your story needs to answer and the order in which you need to answer them.”
Paul: So you don’t need to remember, is this the hook or is this the context, or is this the chat? I find that it’s easier for people to wrap their minds around here are eight questions my story needs to answer, and in this order, right? If you’ll remember from the book, the first one is, why should I listen to the story? Right? The first question you got to answer is, why somebody should bother listening to the story. Otherwise, they might not, right? They might just mentally check out on you. But then you get into the real meat of the story. So where, and when did it happen? Who’s the main character and what did they want? What was the problem or opportunity they ran into? What did they do about it? And how did it turn out in the end? Right?
Paul: Now that gets you through six questions. So then you’re technically done with the story. And then the last two are really to help make sense of it. It’s what did you learn from that story? And what do you think I should go do now? If you’re telling me the story, what do you think? What’s your recommendation to me? So if you’re a salesperson, you’ll probably going to recommend that I buy your product. If you’re my boss, you’ll probably going to recommend I go do XYZ. If you’re my parent, you’re going to recommend, I not cross the road without looking at both ends, or don’t do drugs or whatever it is you’re trying to get them to not do. You need to have that ready, but you don’t spring that on them until after you’ve told them the story and find out what lesson they learned from the story. Right?
Paul: That’s important because one of the main reasons stories work so well is because they let people come to their own conclusions about things and people are far more passionate about pursuing their own ideas than they are about pursuing your ideas. Right?
Paul: So tell the story and then stop. So basically stop after question six, after you’ve answered question six, and just listen and see what they say. If they say, “Well, mom or dad, I think what I learned from that is this. And so I think what I’m going to go do is go clean my room or whatever,” great. Because that’s what we wanted you to do.
Andy: Done. They got it. Right.
Paul: But if they come out with a different lesson and they’re not going to do what you wanted, well, then you probably need to answer question seven and eight and just kind of redirect them back on path. But if you chose the right story and you did a halfway decent job of telling it, you’ll never need to answer questions seven or eight because they already have.
Andy: Okay. So it looks like we’re running out of time here, but I really want to make sure that everybody listening knows where they can go to get more of this stuff. You mentioned there was a guide, a question guide people could download from your website about all the stories in this parenting book. So how do people find out more about you?
Paul: Yeah, thanks. So all that stuff is at my website, which is leadwithastory.com. So just the name of the first book, leadwithastory.com and there are links there to all the books and the speaking engagements and training courses that I do on this stuff. But yes, also that discussion guide that goes along with Parenting with a Story so that you can have those kind of conversations with your kids about these. It’s all there.
Andy: Great. Well, thank you so much for making the time to come and talk to us today about storytelling. I think that we learned some really cool stuff from you.
Paul: Oh, great. You’re welcome. Thanks for having me on.
About Paul Smith
One of the world’s leading experts in business storytelling, Paul is one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers of 2018, a storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Sell with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Lead with a Story. Paul is also a former consultant at Accenture and former executive and 20-year veteran of The Procter & Gamble Company.
As part of his research on the effectiveness of storytelling, Paul has personally interviewed over 250 CEOs, executives, leaders, and salespeople in 25 countries, documenting over 2,000 individual stories. Leveraging those stories and interviews, Paul identified the components of effective storytelling, and developed templates and tools to apply them in practice. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Time, Forbes, Fast Company, The Washington Post, PR News, Success Magazine, and London’s Financial Times, among others.
Paul delivers professional workshops and keynote addresses on effective storytelling for leaders and salespeople. His clients include international giants like Hewlett Packard, Google, Ford Motor Company, Bayer Medical, Abbott, Novartis, Progressive Insurance, Kaiser Permanente, and Procter & Gamble.
Paul holds a bachelor’s degree in economics, and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Cincinnati suburb of Mason, Ohio.